Declining prison population does not lead to increased crime

Pennsylvania's prison population has declined as a result of sentencing reforms, a decline that was repeated across much of the nation.

Pennsylvania joins most other states in posting modest prison population decline

A recent report by the Sentencing Project has found that the number of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania has declined modestly, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The prison population decline, which was seen in a majority of other states as well as on the federal level, follows efforts to reduce overly harsh criminal sentences, especially for some nonviolent drug crimes. The report on prison populations across the United States also pointed out that declining incarceration rates had failed to result in increased crime, as some critics had warned would happen.

Falling prison rates

Pennsylvania's state prison population declined by a relatively modest 2.5 percent between 2009 and 2013. By comparison, New Jersey saw the biggest decline in its prison population, posting a drop of 28.7 percent. Experts say that Pennsylvania's slower decline is likely due to an increase in the number of prisons that were built here over the past decade, thus providing fewer incentives to reduce the prison population until more recently. New Jersey's prison population, for example, peaked back in 1999, whereas in Pennsylvania the population peaked in 2011.

The federal prison population also posted a decline, but it too was relatively modest at just 2.4 percent since 2009. Overall, 34 states saw their prison populations decline, while just 16 saw their prison populations increase, led by Arkansas with a 17 percent rise.

Sentencing reform

The declining prison population is hardly surprising as sentencing reform has become embraced by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent years. Experts say that reducing the financial burden of a bloated prison system combined with trying to make sentencing laws fairer for nonviolent offenders has made sentencing reform a popular bipartisan issue. Those reforms often include reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for minor drug crimes, and eliminating some technical parole violations.

One of the concerns that had been raised by opponents of sentencing reform was that a lower prison population would lead to increased crime. Statistics, however, show that instead of leading to an increase in crime, crime rates actually declined since prison populations began falling. According to Newsweek, over a five-year period both incarceration and crime rates had both declined by 10 percent, suggesting reducing the prison population posed no risk to public safety.

Criminal offenses

While the prison population may be declining and overly harsh sentences are being scaled back, people charged with a criminal offense should not assume that they will be treated lightly by the justice system. Indeed, police and prosecutors are cracking down on many crimes, including drug crimes, just as harshly as ever before. A qualified criminal defense attorney should be contacted immediately when facing a criminal charge, both in order to fight against such charges and to understand what legal rights are available to the accused.

Keywords: crime, offense, sentencing, penalties